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Why the Cowboys offense failed miserably against the Cardinals

Let’s dig deep to see what happened.

NFL: Arizona Cardinals at Dallas Cowboys Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

The Dallas Cowboys offense was pitiful on Sunday night against the Cardinals, only putting up three points on a last-second field goal. The question, then, is why was it so bad? The obvious answer is they played the game without Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, Tyron Smith, Zack Martin and Travis Frederick. That’s your five best players on offense, so we’re starting with a handicap already. Four of them should be on the field for the season-opener.

Still, you would expect the Cowboys mix of backups and starters on offense to perform better than they did. So why did they fail? After charting all seven offensive series from the first half of the game, a few things stick out. One is turnovers. A Rod Smith fumble killed a promising drive, and two Cooper Rush interceptions gave up a touchdown to the Cardinals and prevented the Cowboys from at least getting a field goal at the end of the half.

The other big issue was the run-blocking. The Cowboys passing game was running a lot of short screens, dump-offs and east-west patterns early on, and if you are going to employ that kind of offense, you really need a running game to complement it. Dallas wasn’t getting it. Let’s look at some key plays on offense that helped kill drives.

First Drive:

The Cowboys ran an unsuccessful bootleg to start the series, so they’re behind schedule with a second-and-10. They tried a running play but La’el Collins and Kadeem Edwards let the defensive end knife right between them into the backfield for a two-yard loss on the play. If the Cowboys can pick up four yards on that play, they face a manageable third down. Instead, it’s third-and 12 and even a successful screen on third down can’t save them from punting.

Second Drive:

On the first play the Cowboys try a run to the right side but the offensive line gets no push, they are playing a yard or two behind the line of scrimamge as the play forms. La’el Collins eventually loses his block and Joe Looney has been pushed back into the backfield causing a traffic jam. The play nets one yard. The Cowboys are behind schedule again. The rest of the series dies after a short gain on a hot route pattern to Blake Jarwin, then Rod Smith misses a blitz pickup.

Third Drive:

The Cowboys try a little misdirection in the run game by running an end around on first down. Geoff Swaim is supposed to be the lead blocker coming around the edge, but totally whiffs on his block and the play ends up being a one-yard gain. Noticing a pattern? The Cowboys are behind schedule again facing a second-and-nine. Cooper Rush promptly throws a pick six on an out pattern.

Fourth Drive:

This is the drive when the Cowboys offense finally gets things going. Why? Because they can finally run the ball with some decent success. Arizona has been crowding the line of scrimmage all game and the Cowboys have been unable to beat it. Suddenly, the blocking starts coming together somewhat.

On first down Rod Smith finds a hole in the middle of the line for five yards, a defensive penalty advances the ball further for a first down. Smith comes back for another five yards on first down and the Cowboys are finally ahead of schedule with a second-and-five. Smith follows a pulling duo of Looney and Edwards around the edge for seven yards and the Cowboys are in business.

The next run on first down gets shut down as the Cardinals have eight men in the box and there is no check out by Rush (either it was his mistake or the play-call didn’t have a check out). The play is stuffed for a one-yard gain. Smith gets 12 yards on a screen pass with Edwards leading him downfield. Side note: if there was one thing the Cowboys did very well on the night was run the screen.

On first down, the Cowboys try a run but Collins and Looney are both pushed back leading to a blown up run for no gain. On the next play Smith fumbles killing the Cowboys first promising drive of the first half.

Fifth Drive:

The Cowboys start with a nicely executed bootleg to Swaim, the first real downfield play they have had so far. Bo Scarbrough picks up five yards on fist down and the Cowboys are ahead of schedule. The run-blocking is finally starting to work and the results are noticeable. But all it takes is one bad play, and on second down Connor Williams completely whiffs on a second-level block against a linebacker and Dallas is stuffed for no gain. When this kind of stuff happens, you need your quarterback to make a play. Unfortunately, Rush was not up to the task as he overthrew a wide open Cole Beasley on third down. The good news was the Cowboys were finally starting to go north-south with their passing game, something they would do on their next two series.

Sixth Drive:

On first down, Michael Gallup gets open downfield, beating Patrick Peterson, but mistimes his jump on a ball the was slightly high. If Gallup reads the trajectory of the ball better, or Rush’s throw leads him a little more inside, we could have had a long gain. The connection didn’t happen, but it was good to see Dallas go north-south in the passing game again. On second down, the Cowboys need some yards to get back on schedule, but the run game fails again. Cam Fleming and Edwards both get beat on their blocks and the play results in a one-yard gain. A Cole Beasley screen on third down picks up some yards, but not enough for a first down.

Seventh Drive:

The Cowboys were actually able to overcome a couple of penalties at the beginning of this drive thanks to a Darius Jackson screen pass, and two shots over the middle to Beasley. This should be a reminder of how good Beasley can be, and that the Cowboys are actually using him more down the field and on different kinds of routes than previously. The Cowboys got a roughing the passer penalty to move the ball again, then had a ball batted down and a short pass to Jackson. They were now in the redzone facing a third and five. Disaster strikes again as Rush throws an interception in the endzone. It’s hard to tell, but Gallup looked to be running a post and seemed to flatten out his route. If he keeps moving towards the middle of the field it might have helped Rush who seemed to anticipate that's where he would be. Either way, the Cowboys throw away their first real chance for points in the game

So basically, you had a short passing game that was only effective in the screen game combined with some bad run-blocking to start the game. The Cowboys were constantly behind schedule and Rush didn’t have the ability to bail them out. Once the Cowboys run-blocking started to win some plays, the Cowboys were able to get the ball downfield more and create some drives. But turnovers, or poor throws, doomed them.

A final note, this is not the Cowboys offense we will see in the regular season. So we shouldn’t panic too much. The Cowboys seemed to be calling a game to protect Rush in the pocket, maybe they didn’t trust their makeshift line. They probably could have taken some more chances as the line was that bad at protecting the passer, at least it wasn’t quite the jailbreak situation we seemed to have last week. The problem was in run-blocking, the Cowboys line couldn’t reset the line of scrimmage. When Smith, Marin and Frederick are playing, sometimes the line of scrimmage moves three to five yards downfield on run plays. They generate a remarkable push. The Cowboys backup line, plus Collins and Williams, were either stalemated at the line, or even pushed back. There was very little power to their game.

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